I finally got out of the city and saw the third world today. I’d been staying in central Yangon, which like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, is dirty and
busy, full of honking and humidity, bustling with activity and business, and saturated with smoke and heat. I’d suspected that Central Yangon, like the Tenderloin, was only representative of cityfolk (and that of a certain toughened type), and didn’t represent citizens of the greater Yangon area.
And I was right. The rest of Yangon looks pretty different than city central.
After a warm home cooked breakfast at the Chan Myae Thar Guesthouse, I weaved north through traffic to Yangon Train Station, where a small English sign among its Burmese brothers stated: “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists.” Ever helpful, I was pointed towards platform 7 by train officials (Burmese numbers differ from the Arabic ones I’m used to), and bought a ticket for 1000 Kyat.
What an adventure. The Yangon circle line took me on a tour of the greater Yangon area, and was a slow moving three hour ride in an open-air rickity old train that rolled by barking stray dogs, villagers hauling produce on their heads, and tropical wetland greenery stretching towards the distance. Between stops, vendors ambled up and down the aisle hawking their goods, selling grapes from baskets balanced on their head, noodles mixed with chilies, newspapers, smokes, and a variety of other everyday commuter comforts.
As the train pulled farther away from the city, the riders changed from marketplace hawkers to villager commuters. The scenes outside the window shifted from views of skyscrapers dotted with air conditioners to living diaramas of popup stands vending raw meat with a side of flies. Alongside the train, harvesters pulled vegetables from wetland waterbeds and lively tin-roof villages showed naked babies running and children playing hacky-sak barefoot. Some townships had small golden pagodas, and others were homes built upon stilts on the river. At one stop, locals hauled sacks of leafy produce onto the train to sell at the next village over. Quickly the train pulled away from urban Yangon central towards a rural agricultural landscape.
On the train, a friendly monk asked me where I was from and 30 minutes later he was giving me his email address and inviting me to visit his monastery. He started making conversation by recommending that I visit the hot air balloon festival near his hometown in Dongzhi, showing me facebook photos on his phone and using a Burmese-English dictionary app when words failed him. He told me they only study three subjects at the monastery (Buddhism, English, and India) and that he’d also studied in Thailand. He shared dreams of opening a university in his village and in his excitement, missed his stop. But after snapping a quick no-smile photo with me (apparently they don’t smile for pics here) he hopped off the train grinning, glad to have made a new friend.